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‘The Fridge’ stunned to get Super Bowl ring back

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Nobody who has read about William Perry’s deteriorating health knew what to expect when “The Fridge” appeared at the Ace Hardware Spring Convention at McCormick Place on Saturday to pitch his latest product. Could a man once so full of life really be near death, as a recent story on a national website suggested? Would fans who lined up for an autograph or a picture see a husk of the former 300-plus pound, gap-toothed defensive tackle who captivated the nation while the Bears romped to Super Bowl immortality at the end of the 1985 season?

Turns out, the “Fridge” looked like you would expect him to look a quarter century later — round, happy and full of life.

“I’m doing a whole lot better,” Perry said. “I’m up and moving around. I’m doing what I like to do best — fishing.”

Perry suffers from Guillain-Barre syndrome, a hideous auto-immune disorder that damages nerves, causing weakness and paralysis. For that reason, the health of the robust former folk legend remains fragile, but he insists he’s laying off the alcohol, watching his weight and exercising to manage this potentially debilitating disorder.

Smile still lights up a room

He has trouble getting around and uses a battery-powered scooter. His hearing has degenerated, and he refuses to use a hearing aid. But the Fridge says he’s doing just fine and adds conviction to his words by flashing a smile that still lights up a room.

“Mainly, I’m watching everything, what I eat and what I do,” he said. “I’m doing what I’m supposed to do and keeping positive. Being negative, that’s not me.”

Perry’s health didn’t allow him to return for the 25th anniversary celebration of the 1985 Bears last season, but this trip was fraught with meaning.

Perry won’t say what happened to his Super Bowl XX ring, whether he misplaced it, if it was stolen or if he sold it to pay medical bills. But he was recently contacted by the family of a 10-year-old boy from Pittsburgh who used $8,500 of his college money to buy the ring, which is big enough around for the young sports memorabilia collector to wear as a bracelet.

Instead of keeping it, young Cliff Forrest insisted on returning the ring to its rightful owner, which he did Saturday morning after flying to Chicago with his family.

“I Googled Mr. Perry and saw that he had a disease and had to sell it because of rough times,” young Cliff said. “He only played in one Super Bowl. I thought he would want it more than I did.”

Perry was overwhelmed by the gesture. He was also thrilled to see his former coach Mike Ditka, who was signing autographs for another sponsor at the convention.

“He looks good,” said Ditka, who has always had a soft spot for Perry, and whose “Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund” has helped pay Perry’s medical costs. “It’s the best I’ve seen him look in a long time. He’s really working at it.”

Everybody loves the Fridge, but when you hear stories about him refusing to take his medication, spurning exercise and drinking heavily, as outlined in an story in early February, it makes you wonder how much he loves himself.

Perry insists that he is now focused solely on the future, especially in the wake of a recent tragedy that shook him and his Bears teammates to their core. Perry was always close to Dave Duerson, so close he didn’t believe that the former safety committed suicide at first. His agent had to overnight him an article to convince him it was true.

“I was very surprised that he did that,” Perry said. “It shocked me real bad because I was close friends with Dave.

“You have to think about yourself first and how you’re handling your own business before you worry about someone else’s business.”

Always the pitchman

Perry is still able to do what he has always done best — pitch products. He signed on to become the national spokeman for The Grill Daddy Brush Co. He shot a commercial in January. Those with him then said he looks even better now.

As he continues to battle his disease, Perry said he often thinks about blocking for Walter Payton, barreling over the goal line and plugging up the middle of the opposing offensive line.

“It was just fun being around all those guys and enjoying myself,” he said. “It seemed like it would never end, but it did. Things happen, so you deal with it and keep going. A lot of things went by real fast. You think about it, get a good laugh about it and you move on to the next phase.”

The next phase for Perry is obvious: Stay healthy. A man who has always been known for taking the path of least resistance says that’s no longer the case. As his ­appearance wound down, Perry, showing off his recently recovered Super Bowl ring, had a final ­request: Don’t feel sorry for him.

“It don’t matter what nobody says — everybody gets sick,” he said before he steered his cart out of the convention center. “I’m back. I’m healthy. I’m fine. I’m getting better and better.”

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